I don’t struggle with drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, or any of the other myriad addictions that flesh is heir to, except one: computer games. Specifically, computerized role-playing games, or CRPGs. Other kinds of games, IF included, don’t have this effect on me, but when it comes to CRPGs, something in my brain just craves more, more, more. I have to keep it in check, and when I notice myself playing to the exclusion of anything productive, I have to stop for a while. Even two years after buying the superhero CRPG Freedom Force, the desire to play it still gnaws at me all the time, though of course I’m now playing a heavily modded version, so it hasn’t been the exact same thing over and over again.
In recognition of this addiction, I’ve steered well clear of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. In fact, I’m aware of the existence of an excellent superhero MMORPG (City of Heroes) in the same way that an alcoholic is aware of an open bottle of gin across the room. I’m not alone in my predicament — there’s a good reason why EverQuest was quickly nicknamed EverCrack.
But what is that reason? Why do CRPGs have such a potent effect on me when things like IF, Minesweeper, and arcade games don’t? For me, I think the answer boils down to infinite variety, gradual advancement, and creative outlet. When an IF game is over, it’s over — some games have limited replayability value, but for the most part, the story is the story. CRPGs, on the other hand, introduce a sufficient number of random and strategic elements that even within the broad outlines of a plot, I can have a very different experience each time through the game. That variety encourages repetition, because I never get to feel “finished.”
Secondly, CRPGs allow the PC to grow in power and prestige, with more and more options available as the game goes on, and I think this feature taps into something deep in the wiring of my brain. Maybe it’s just the human drive to accumulate power, or maybe it’s the little charge of victory, similar to what a gambling addict feels after a win. There’s something overwhelmingly seductive about the feeling of progress, especially when that progress is clearly marked with symbols like “level.” The feeling of “leveling up” feeds an ancient part of my nature, which is no doubt why levels are designed into many arcade games.
Finally, unlike many other kinds of games, CRPGs offer a great deal of creative outlet, from the makeup of your character to the way you handle the game world’s obstacles. In a CRPG with a sufficient degree of simulationism, there can be dozens or even hundreds of ways to address any given threat or roadblock, and it’s hard (for me) to be satisfied with trying just one, even after I’m successful. With these three features, CRPGs have sunk their hooks into me quite deeply.
Which brings me, finally, to Magocracy. The readme for this game states upfront that it “is not like most Interactive Fiction games,” and that’s true — it’s really more CRPG than IF, and it deploys some of the aspects of the CRPG pretty effectively. It provides quite a bit of variety, though it’s not quite infinite, and some of the typical CRPG elements are missing. There are no randomly generated monsters, for instance — just predetermined monsters and adversaries who wander randomly around the map and engage the PC in combat. However, even this amount of randomness is sufficient to vary the experience of Magocracy significantly from one session to the next, and the variety works in its favor.
Secondly, though the game doesn’t use traditional levels, it definitely provides powerful markers of advancement. Upon conquering an enemy, the PC usually stands to gain better protection, increased abilities, new attacks, and sometimes even a superpower or two. Every time I upgraded my weapon or learned a new spell, the addict part of my brain was panting, “yeah, yeah.” As for creative outlet, that’s probably where Magocracy is weakest. Many aspects of the experience are predetermined, including the PC’s character and initial abilities, and consequently, the game won’t stand up to all that many replays. However, there is some room for cleverness when it comes to the fighting, particularly once the PC has gained some power.
Perhaps luckily for me, Magocracy also contains some flaws. The worst of these is a design that sometimes drains all the fun out of the game. There are a number of situations that put the PC into an inescapable bind, and most of these aren’t immediately obvious as dead ends. Consequently, I was several times forced to restore back to an earlier point, even after having achieved some key victories. The frustration of these setbacks well outweighs the buzz of gradual advancement, and in fact makes me want to quit playing rather than try to get all my victories back. I would have greatly appreciated a more IF-like way to get out of the traps through nothing but my own cleverness. Instead, I finally had to break out the hints, only to learn that the game had screwed me and I needed to restore. There’s at least one sudden-death ending, too, though this isn’t nearly as bad since I could just UNDO. In fact, the turn-based nature of IF and the availability of UNDO made combat cheats too easy, though after a number of random deaths I felt a lot more justified.
There are also a number of minor bugs and mechanical errors in the game — nothing show-stopping, but always distracting. Along the same lines, Magocracy sometimes fails to properly account for some of the secondary properties of its various items and spells. For instance, at one point I was protected with a shield of light, but when I found myself in a dark place, I still couldn’t see. Last of all, the game doesn’t seem to have a proper ending. After I gained all the points, it printed out some denouement text and THE END, after which it displayed “[TADS-1003: numeric value required]” and went back to the prompt, leaving me to wander around the castle as if I’d just finished Myst. Overall, Magocracy is a pretty fair text CRPG, and I had a good time with it, but I don’t see myself becoming addicted to it anytime soon. Which reminds me, I was going to customize a Freedom Force mission to pit the X-Men against the Brood…